Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Coniston Water Triptych

coniston water triptych for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face 1 Corinthians 13 v12

It is dusk and the clouds are taking up their familiar position over and around the summits of the Coniston Horseshoe in the Lake District. The village itself nestles deeply between the fells and the lake as though cradled in the palm of a hand. The evening breeze is picking up and the still surface of the water is becoming ever more rippled by a myriad  of small waves processing gently across the lake.

With the camera on a tripod a shutter speed of 1 second captures the scene as we could never see  it unaided, but in a way that a theologian might recognise.

The upper panel of the triptych shows everything in clear detail; we are seeing the landscape as it is and can recognise the particularities of this place and its complex features. The seasons and the weather change, but the basic picture remains constant.

In the middle panel we are dealing with reflections from the surface of the water. Here the scene from the upper panel is inverted, its details made blurry and indistinct by the breeze sweeping across the lake. Outlines and form can just be discerned, as can the brighter areas of the sky and the darker shapes of clouds.

In the lower panel we are challenged by an almost complete lack of detail, save for the changing tonalities which hint at the possibility that here might be something we can interpret, understand and ultimately recognise. The slow shutter speed has captured a sequence of tiny waves, which has had the effect of blurring and smoothing the surface of the water in the closest parts of the image to the camera. This resembles an averaging out of the reality which our naked eye would see crisply and clearly in an instant of perception. Taken by itself this part of the photograph is a puzzle. The panel seen solo is enigmatic. Pictured alongside the other panels it slots into place in our mind

In my experience, trying to understand God as God is witnessed to in the Bible, understood in theology and encountered in our daily lives is like looking at the panels of this triptych. And I have learned not only to be relaxed about this, but to really value this triptych aspect of faith. I would contend that in order to have a healthy, open and receptive faith we need the mystery and uncertainty of the lower panel. Here we are tantalized and perplexed by the reality of God; here answers slip through our fingers and we are left holding only questions. It is as though we are looking at a reflection of a cloud of unknowing, which as the mystics would testify is an uncomfortable yet soul-makingly essential place to be. Perhaps it is here, way out beyond clarity and certainty, that real trust in the ultimate reality of God is forged.

And the middle panel is for me the place where I do most of my theology - which probably explains a lot - and live most of my spiritual life. Reflections are beautiful things to behold. There is an intensity to them which is similar but quite markedly different somehow to viewing the 'real' thing. I think this is to do with that sense of there being something deeper, behind and below, just out of sight, especially when the surface of the water is perfectly still and calm.

So the top panel, far from being the norm, represents for me those rare and precious moments of insight and faith experience which are exceptional, stunning and life-changing. Here one knows that one has seen God in such a way that the particularities and details of ones being snap into tack-sharp focus. These are moments of profound  recognition about ourselves and God together. Moments perhaps of calling and vocation, of deeply knowing and of taking heart. Moments of Godsight which change us forever. Treasured glimpses of eternity. Mountain top encounters which happen at the ground level of our living.


  1. Stunning post, Dave. For me, a very helpful way of picturing the different landscapes we inhabit in our spiritual lives. And finding a rich echo in 1 Cor 12: Now we see in a mirror, dimly (as in the middle section of the triptych), but then we will see face to face (top section). The mountain top experiences are brief foretastes of the clarity to come.
    An important part of my spiritual journey at the moment is learning to spend more and more time in the lower section. As you say, that is where the soul-making is done, but I find it an unnerving place to be.

  2. Hi Rachel, and many thanks for your kind and helpful comments, as a result of which I have added the text from 1 Corinthians 13:12 to the image. Spot on!

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